Celebrating Centuries of Sag Harbor Village Culture

The Sag Harbor Whaling Museum and Customs House as seen from the John Jermain Memorial Library.

By Douglas Feiden

Henry Packer Dering was worried — about war, debt, money, family, trade, health, customs, shipping, supplies, the weather, the post, and of course, this being Sag Harbor, real estate prices.

As the War of 1812 loomed, he penned a letter to one of his nine children, advising a daughter “not to purchase a house for $600, and $800 more in furnishings, as the situation of our affairs is not good and there is so great a prospect of war.”

Welcome to the Sag Harbor Cultural Heritage Day on Saturday, May 21, in which readings from the candid correspondence of the port’s first custom collector, postmaster and military storekeeper — staged in the different period rooms of the Custom House and accompanying house tours — are part of a kaleidoscopic panoply of events at eight cultural destinations across the village.

Organized by the Sag Harbor Cultural District, an umbrella group for the village’s arts and cultural nonprofits, the Heritage Day fest is a celebration of the community’s rich cultural history, nine months in the planning, that aims to advance the mission of the district — to “further the sense of Sag Harbor as a place where culture matters and creativity thrives.”

Dozens of offerings throughout the day — from tours to talks, poems to poultices, readings to recitals, paintings to photographs, letters to literature, jazz to Jacques Brel — will help achieve that goal with a smorgasbord of sights, sounds and senses.

“It’s a way to bring the community together, and maximize the effectiveness of our outreach with the variety of artistic, historical and cultural resources available to us in Sag Harbor,” said Eric Cohen, facilitator of Cultural Heritage Day.

The Sag Harbor Whaling Museum and Customs House as seen from the John Jermain Memorial Library.
The Sag Harbor Whaling Museum and Customs House as seen from the John Jermain Memorial Library.

The celebration was deliberately scheduled before Memorial Day, when residents and visitors have more flexibility and participating institutions aren’t as busy as they become once the high season gets underway, he said.

Depending on how the day goes, a new village tradition could be born: “We hope this will be the first annual Cultural Heritage Day,” Mr. Cohen said.

Drawing people outside the commercial core on Main Street, and promoting what the National Endowment for the Arts terms “creative placemaking” or “cultural placemaking” in other parts of the village, is another goal of the event, organizers say.

According to the NEA definition, placemaking involves public, private, nonprofit and community partners strategically shaping the physical and social character of a neighborhood or village around its arts and cultural activities. In miniature, that’s what will be on display on Saturday.

“This is a walking village,” said Greg Therriault, manager of the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. “And this kind of an event — combined with the soon-to-be reopening of the library, the work we’ve done at the museum and the public space in front of the Custom House — will bring visitors up Main Street, expand their vision of what Sag Harbor is about and encourage them to walk about the village and beyond the business district.”

It will also boost visibility for signature institutions that are sometimes “perceived as isolated,” said Alexandra Parsons Wolfe, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, which owns Custom House.

“The goal is to make connections between this wonderful collection of cultural, artistic and historic assets and collectively remind people they have access to resources that enhance the quality of life within the community.”

In the process, the perception and scope of the village will be broadened:

“We have a huge presence in literature, music, art and history,” said Bunnii Buglione, office manager of the Bay Street Theater. “The culture in such a small community is awesome. And people who don’t know us so well will look at us now as more than just the Watchcase and the old fishing village.”

How do the organizers magnify an already super-sized cultural footprint in Sag Harbor?

Pair jazz pianist Judy Carmichael, for the first time ever, with Grammy-winner Billy Stritch at Bay Street. Offer a tour to show off the glorious Tiffany windows and strike up the Müller pipe organ at Christ Episcopal Church. Host a folklore walking tour through an Underground Railroad route starting at the Eastville Community Historical Society’s Heritage House.

Present an 8-hour marathon reading of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” with a boost from 50 Whitman aficionados, at Canio’s Cultural Cafe. Document the working-class roots of Sag Harbor in paintings and photos exhibited by nine local artists at the Whaling Museum. Invite visitors to “make history” by donating old deeds, menus, yearbooks, maps, photos, sketchbooks, genealogies and nautical memorabilia to the John Jermain Memorial Library.

Teach medical culture via the story of a Civil War-era physician who was an early pioneer of homeopathic medicine in an exhibit called “Plants, Pills and Poultices” at the Sag Harbor Historical Society’s Annie Cooper Boyd House and Museum.

At a time when arsenic, mercury, copper, leeches and bloodletting were popular, a medical rebel named Dr. Edgar Miles broke with the “killer cures” and used plants and herbs to create his own compounds, said Deborah Anderson, a society trustee.

Operating from the Botanic Depot, an early pharmacy at the corner of Main and Washington streets, he found a better way to treat patients by “going back to the old root doctors, who were inspired by Native Americans,” she said.

And like so much in Sag Harbor, there is a personal family connection: “He was the great-grandfather of my husband,” Ms. Anderson said.